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Bad food has a history. Swindled tells it. Through a fascinating mixture of cultural and scientific history, food politics, and culinary detective work, Bee Wilson uncovers the many ways swindlers have cheapened, falsified, and even poisoned our food throughout history. In the hands of people and corporations who have prized profits above the health of consumers, food and drink have been tampered with in often horrifying ways--padded, diluted, contaminated, substituted, mislabeled, misnamed, or otherwise faked. Swindled gives a panoramic view of this history, from the leaded wine of the ancient Romans to today's food frauds--such as fake organics and the scandal of Chinese babies being fed bogus milk powder.
Wilson pays special attention to nineteenth- and twentieth-century America and England and their roles in developing both industrial-scale food adulteration and the scientific ability to combat it. As Swindled reveals, modern science has both helped and hindered food fraudsters--increasing the sophistication of scams but also the means to detect them. The big breakthrough came in Victorian England when a scientist first put food under the microscope and found that much of what was sold as "genuine coffee" was anything but--and that you couldn't buy pure mustard in all of London.
Arguing that industrialization, laissez-faire politics, and globalization have all hurt the quality of food, but also that food swindlers have always been helped by consumer ignorance, Swindled ultimately calls for both governments and individuals to be more vigilant. In fact, Wilson suggests, one of our best protections is simply to reeducate ourselves about the joys of food and cooking.
"As Wilson traces, with both precision and passion, the many changes wrought on the world of food over several centuries, a pattern seems to emerge: 'Improvements' often result in food of dubious if not dangerous qualities."--Jennifer Hewett, The American Interest
"A rigorous, but very entertaining history of food adulteration from medieval times onwards."--Toby Clements, The Daily Telegraph
"Sweets used to get their colour from toxic lead, copper or mercury--this is just one of the shocking facts in Bee Wilson's lively history of food adulteration. Her story focuses on Britain and the USA, in which rapid industrialization and lack of government regulation have allowed free rein to 'food cheats'."--Katie Owen, Sunday Telegraph
"Wilson tells chronologically and admirably a continuing and bittersweet story."--Ross Leckie, The Times
"Wilson's sharp wit and expansive research make her book an engaging read."--Amy Vincent, Corporate Counsel
"Swindled is unsettling with a good sense of humor."--Food Management
"In this engaging study, Wilson narrates the history of food adulteration in Britain and the US. According to the author, this history is essentially the account of an epic battle between the science of deception and the science of detection. . . . This volume will amply reward the growing number of readers concerned about both food authenticity and food safety."--D.M. Gilbert, Choice
"I recommend Swindled for undergraduate history courses on food, culture, or public policy, but it is worth noting that Wilson drops the historian's dispassionate analysis when discussing modern topics. Here her normative frame becomes clear (one I embrace as a citizen if not as a historian); she is a crusading reformer against today's 'adulterated' foods laden with additives, preservatives, vitamin and mineral supplements, flavorings, and sweeteners."--James A. Spiller, Journal of American History
Columnist and food writer Wilson takes readers to the beginning of the 19th century to document the history of food adulteration-at heart "two very simple principles: poisoning and cheating." Concentrating on Britain and the U.S. (other countries, especially France, navigated food supply industrialization with wiser government policy), Wilson finds the first food crusader in Frederick Accum, a German immigrant who used chemistry to expose the dishonesty of London food purveyors in his Treatise on Adulterations of Food and Culinary Poisons; she finds the first ineffective government response in Parliament's commitment to laissez faire economic policies over citizen safety. In the U.S., New York's 1850s "swill milk" epidemic and Chicago's meat packing industry would eventually lead to the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act-which probably wouldn't have passed without the popularity of Upton Sinclair's meat packing expose The Jungle, and couldn't stop the most nefarious and prevalent of food frauds, the development of fake foods: margarine, baby formula and thousands more. Wilson follows the economic, cultural and political threads skillfully, reporting on developments as recent as the China baby formula scandal. Prescribing more awareness and regulation, Wilson contends that consumers and governments must recognize the continuous pressure on companies to make money by substituting nutritious, genuine ingredients with adulterants. Timely, witty and purposeful, this thorough history should open a lot of eyes. .
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Posted June 19, 2009
It's amazing to know that governments and people have become so good at shutting our eyes to the adulteration and toxicity of food and drink. This has been going on for hundreds of years. Known by all and celebrated in song. Greed, lack of oversight and no regulations in all countries seem to be the common thread. This is an enjoyable read. Indeed, it is "food for thought".Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.